Headline Aug 29, 2014/



The crucial ingredients for Patterson's  ''Glo-gurt''  is a gene known as green fluorescent protein, or GFP.

Originally found in jellyfish and a species of polyp called the sea pansy, GFP allows these creatures to bioluminesce  when disturbed.

In 2000, an artist named Eduardo Kac created  ''GFP Bunny,'' a genetically altered albino hare that glowed bright green in the presence of ultraviolet light. Since then, the gene and its colourful relatives have been domesticated  -very domesticated.

Pet store now sell GFP-altered zebra fish as GloFish. They are available in Starfish Red, Electric Green, Sunburst Orange, Cosmic Blue and Galactic Purple.

Three scientists who studied the gene won a Nobel Prize in 2008, and GFP is more seriously used as a marker to track all kinds of changes and effects at the genetic level. Patterson's aim with the Glo-gurt is not quiet so high.

She thought it would be cool to go to a rave with the glow sticks that she could eat.

When we arrived back in her apartment, writes the author,  Patterson showed me a sample of the  blow-in-the-dark  plasmid that she had obtained, she kept it sealed in a bag in her freezer next to some frozen chicken wings and a box of Eggos.

She had ordered it from the Carolina Biological Supply in North Carolina, the same way someone else might order a sweater.

Her basic plan was to grow a batch of the yogurt bacteria. introduce the GFP gene into the cells, and then use the modified bacteria to make yogurt again. To do so, we would  need to improvise an electroporation device that could help usher the glow-in-the-dark gene into the Lactobacillus.

Electroporation is a common genetic procedure that involves exposing cells to a  2,300 volt, pulsed electrical field. In bacteria, the charge changes the permeability of the cell membrane:

Making it possible to pass the GFP plasmid through it. "Essentially." Patterson said, ''we're going to taser them.''      

Patterson does all of her work, high voltage and otherwise, in her apartment, a place shared by changing cast of  roommates. It's all very familiar    - a friendly wreck of used furniture,  piles of books and boxes, -coats, beanbag chairs-

And a potted glade of homeplants, clustered desperately at the windows. Scattered on the table that serves her lab is her improvised genetic gear. Patterson long ago solved the problem of obtaining  lab-quality pipettes by purchasing from an online pharmacy:

Cheap disposable insulin needles that can measure down to the microliter. She reenigineered a nine inch floppy-drive motor from a computer she bought for $5 used to serve as a  centrifuge  for spinning vials of liquid containing bacteria.

Her autoclave is a pressure cooker,  and her incubator is a tailgater's fridge from Sharper image that can cool or warm. ''Someone was getting rid of one of these for $30," she said.  "Mine now."

There's a playful quality to all this. While it's bale-wiring some junk she bought at a street sale or working out ingenious substitutes  from the local pharmacy. 

Patterson talks about the coating her lab with as much glee as she does the genetic engineering she's attempting.

And that same joy, call it subversive freedom, is what drew her into synbio in the first place.

When the   ''programmer's conference Codecon''  was being scheduled a few years ago, she volunteered to put on a little DNA show, and the organizers agreed.

She wanted to illuminate the seemingly complex world that most of us imagine when we hear words like  ''recombinant DNA''  and show that it was quite accessible.

For instance, the process of extracting DNA from the classic green pea, the subject of Gregor Mendel's famous experiments, can be made to sound very complicated.

A professional in a lab might discuss cell disruption to penetrate the membrane, followed by removal of lipids. followed by an isopropanol bath and a protease wash, followed by some turns in a centrifuge to yield a bit of stringy  DNA in the bottom of the test tube.

But Patterson showed up to the conference with a box of stuff found in the most kitchens or bathrooms.
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